Miserable life inside New York City’s broken shelter system

Cockroaches in food and mice crawling on beds. Constant assaults and thefts. Shelters are like dungeons.

This is what life is like inside three big Big Apple homeless shelters and why many destitute residents say they’d rather take their chances on the street to get into a system they say is broken.

“I used to leave here after checking the bed and go to sleep on the train to Far Rockaway. You really can’t sleep here,” Sean McCloney, a 50-year-old US Navy veteran, recently told The Post outside the Bad 30th Street Reception Center. Reputation where he has been living for the past six months.

“Last night, this kid who got his back hurt was in the shower and this huge guy came and started squeezing him naked. He’s not going to leave. That’s scary! It’s not going to go anywhere well. That’s why I shower fully.”

“Trains are the best place to sleep, the safest place. At least they were.”

McCaloney’s concerns — echoed by other homeless New Yorkers in more than a dozen interviews — will be one of the biggest challenges Mayor Eric Adams faces as he seeks to reform violent crime and underground homelessness through his new subway safety plan, which began February 21. .

Social workers speak to a homeless man sleeping on a bench in a Manhattan subway station last month.
AP Photo/John Minchillo, File

In the first week of the programme, roving teams of social workers, policemen and doctors were scouring major subway stations and train lines with 1,000 homeless people. The city council said that only 22 of them accepted the shelter bed.

The new plan calls for 30 such teams, who are supposed to work together to toughen enforcement of MTA rules and persuade homeless people in New York to head to shelters, but on the first day of the initiative, only nine were deployed. More than two weeks after the program began, City Hall said that number had risen to 12 – six teams across two shifts – but had repeatedly declined to provide details.

While Adams explained that it would take time to resolve a problem that has plagued the five boroughs permanently, many homeless New Yorkers living on the streets said their minds are already made up — they don’t enter the shelter system until it is fixed.

A homeless man and a dog on W.34th Street in downtown.
A homeless man and his dog lie on the sidewalk at West 34th Street downtown on March 4, 2022.
Helen Seidman

said former City Council member Stephen Levine, who chaired the City Council’s Public Welfare Committee for eight years.

People do not feel safe in community shelters. They were dangerous from a COVID perspective and don’t give people stability.”

No toilet paper, constant fighting

The Post spoke to more than a dozen New Yorkers who live inside the shelters of large barracks-style congregations where safety concerns have long prevailed. They described treacherous and filthy conditions that left some in fear for their lives and others regretting their decision to go home.

A police officer wakes up a homeless man.  The LIRR section of Penn Station at rush hour,
City Hall has deployed more social workers and officers to the subway in hopes of encouraging more homeless people to go to shelters.
Stefano Giovannini

At the 30th Street reception center, residents said toilet paper was hard to come by, and they should wipe themselves with blankets and sheets.

In the Tillary Street Women’s Shelter, which shelters mentally ill adults and those with substance abuse problems, chaos is the only constant.

“You can’t sleep. You have to watch over your shoulder 24 hours if you don’t have your things,” said Lauren, 34, a mother of three trying to get back on her feet at a downtown Brooklyn facility after six months on the streets. Every day, it’s gone…Some people lock up their mattresses until they come back to make sure it’s still there.”

New York City homeless staying at the city's train stations and on boarding buses stop to warm up from near-chill temperatures.
City Hall reports that only 22 homeless people have accepted a shelter family so far.
J.N. Miller

She continued, “They shouldn’t send people here… I feel like I’m back in prison… [Adams] He really needs to clean up the place before he sends them here.”

Sandra, who is in her forties and also lives in a Tillary Street shelter, said weapons and drugs are constantly being smuggled, mentally ill residents are not given their medication and police are called to the facility almost daily due to constant fighting between clients.

“I feel like someone is going to hit me or kill me there. I’m not looking at anyone. I walk with my head down,” Sandra said.

Homeless people sleep under scaffolding in a temporary shelter, August 19, 2020.
Many homeless people have compared dilapidated shelters to prisons.
Robert Nickelsberg / Getty Images

“I left and just came back in June because I was afraid for my life there. I went to my girlfriend’s house. I wanted my own place so I had to go back.”

Shireen Abbar, 26, said she ended up in a Tillary Street shelter after she was described as an “emotionally disturbed individual” after a disagreement with another resident at another facility.

“I’m sleeping [in a room] “With someone standing on top of me for hours,” Abar, who works for a mobile phone company and goes back to school, said. She added that she is not mentally ill or having substance abuse problems.

A shelter made of cardboard boxes by homeless people sits on a sidewalk on December 15, 2020 in New York City.
Former city councilor Stephen Levine has argued that homeless residents “do not feel safe in collective shelters.”
Robert Nickelsberg / Getty Images

“She just stands there and stares at people. Yeah I’m scared. That’s crazy.”

At the Bedford-Atlantic Armory in Crown Heights, long known as one of the most dangerous facilities in the Big Apple, The Post had difficulties conducting interviews outside the building because a mentally ill man kept rushing a reporter and yelling at them.

“I can’t wait to get out of here,” said Giulio Liriano, 23, who is a part-time builder and has lived in the shelter for more than four months.

A view of a former Radisson hotel on Wall Street that has been converted into a homeless shelter.
Big Apple residents grew angry when the Homeless Services Administration reportedly placed registered sex offenders at a former Radisson hotel on Wall Street.
John Nasion/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

“The bathroom is always dirty. The dorm is dirty. There are cockroaches and mice everywhere. You might wake up with a mouse on your bed saying good morning,” Liriano explained.

“The food is here – they give us a PB&J, and it’s like we’re in jail. The dorms are like we’re in jail. It’s crowded, 25 to 45 people in a room. It’s covid, come on.”

Lincoln Bunch, 52, said he’s been at the shelter for three months and that the beds are the same ones used in city jails.

De Blasio's management turned city hotels into shelters for the homeless during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.
The de Blasio administration turned city hotels into shelters for the homeless during the COVID pandemic in 2020.
Lev Radin / Pacific Press / LightRocket via Getty Images

“They don’t do what they’re supposed to do. They don’t clean dorms the way they’re supposed to,” Bunch said.

“They don’t give you towels all the time, they change the bed sheets maybe once a month.”

“There are accidents every day,” he said – quarrels, overdoses, deaths, assaults and thefts.

Some of the more violent cases in city-run homeless shelters have made previous headlines.

A man sleeps under the seats of a subway car, in New York, on October 31, 2017.
Homeless New Yorkers have admitted that it’s safer to sleep on the subway than to stay in shelters.
AP Photo / Richard Drew, File

Police said Stanley Castor, 39, was killed last May after fellow resident Patrick McDonough, 49, stabbed him repeatedly in the neck, shoulder and arm at the Times Square Hotel.

About a month ago, Timothy Paz, 29, was stabbed in the chest and back, and cut in the face and neck by a troubled “drug addict” at a downtown homeless shelter, according to court records.

And in 2019, a 22-year-old homeless man living in a shelter on the Upper West Side was killed after a fellow resident, 36 at the time, stabbed him multiple times in the chest, according to cops.

Bellevue Men's Shelter New York - 400 East 30th Street, New York, NY
Bellevue Men’s Shelter at 400 E. 30th Street in Manhattan.
Google Maps

“This is not the way we should approach the shelter”

The Big Apple shelter system consists of more than 400 facilities—funded and supervised by the city—including those for families with children, couples and single adults.

Adult barracks-style facilities – some literally built in old warehouses – have repeatedly come under intense scrutiny due to safety concerns. But it still exists because New York is required by a decades-old court settlement to provide every homeless New Yorker with a bed, and barracks facilities are usually the cheapest way to do so.

“We’ve had this conversation about shelter security for years,” said Levine, who left the board in 2021 after 12 years due to the city’s state boundary law. “This is not how we should approach the shelter.”

Bedford-Atlantic Armory Men's Shelter in Crown Heights, Brooklyn.
Passengers sleep in rats and mice infested bedrooms at the Bedford-Atlantic Armory men’s shelter, according to Giulio Liriano.
Paul Martinka

Jacqueline Simon, director of policy for the Coalition for the Homeless, said the city needed to “redesign” the system so people “feel more safe and respected.”

“When we talk to homeless people on the streets, we find that many people have made the decision to avoid the shelter system because they are not meeting their needs for safety and dignity,” Simon said.

The city’s Department of Social Services and the Homeless Services Department said more than 300 shelter sites that did not meet the city’s standards had been closed and the agency launched a “shelter repair squad” in 2016 that has conducted more than 63,000 shelter inspections since its inception. The agency said the initiative sought to restore the shelters through “extensive repairs and renovations,” and as a result, violations were down 95 percent, an all-time low.

Giulio Liriano says the Bedford-Atlantic Armory men's shelter is crowded with
Giulio Liriano says the Bedford-Atlantic Armory men’s shelter is crowded with “25 to 45 people per room.”
Paul Martinka

The DSS-DHS rep vehemently denied that outdoor life is safer.

“To all New Yorkers in need: Sleeping on the streets is dangerous and under no circumstances is it safer than sleeping in a city shelter,” said city spokesman Isaac McGinn.

“The reality is that the health and safety of our customers is our top priority, which is why we have made unprecedented investments to address decades of underfunding and transform the shelter system, and we are constantly working to continue making improvements across our system.”

A city council spokeswoman said the Adams administration is committed to ending homelessness.

“We will continue to invest in providing quality shelters and services to help New Yorkers get back on their feet and put them on the path to permanent housing,” said delegate Kate Smart.

But despite numerous investments and a massive DSS-DHS budget of $2.1 billion for the 2022 fiscal year, an employee at the 30th Street Reception Center said the facility remains unsafe.

“There is not a lot of security. There are seven floors of living space here, and that’s a lot of people… you are on your own,” the worker said.

“Many of them are old or disabled and they are the ones who get injured. They are the ones who get killed… They can’t defend themselves and they can’t escape, so they are abused. Only security can do so much.”

“So yeah, it might be safer for them on the street in some cases.”

Additional reporting by Kristina Nariznaya